In a world overrun with shallow foodies, I admire the true food nerds. Not content with merely hitting well-hyped fine-dining venues, they are single-minded in their pursuit of great food, whatever the cuisine, level of formality, or location. So upon hearing that Boston's first Somali restaurant has opened, food nerds should seek out Tawakal Halal Cuisine, hidden above the Victory Pub in Orient Heights, where their geeky determination will be amply rewarded.
Service begins with delicious, complimentary sweet black tea accented with clove and cardamom. Appetizers show how Somali chefs borrow from a dozen world cuisines. Fish sambusa ($1.50), a beautifully fried version of the Indian samosa, is filled with spicy minced tilapia and fresh hot green chilies. Nafakha ($0.50) fries a coating of mashed potato onto a hardboiled egg. Bajiya ($0.50) is akin to a crisp, flattened falafel. Those three, plus patata — a waxy potato coated with a chili-tinged batter — comprise the mixed platter ($2.75). Kabab ($1) is like a flattened beef meatball spiked with fresh chilies. All benefit from dribs of basbaas, a brick-toned, complexly spiced, pleasantly fiery chili sauce.
Generous, shareable entrées include the Tawakal plate ($10.99), a mound of chapati (wheat flatbread) cut into strips to resemble chewy pasta, with sautéed onions, peppers, and chunks of steak or chicken. Soor ($14.99) consists of chunky grits (of Kenyan origin), a saag-like spinach sauté, and a heap of bone-in chunks of roast goat, each on its own plate and big enough to feed three. Chicken biryani ($9.99), unlike the layered Indo-Pakistani casserole dish of the same name, is a composed plate of moist and beautifully seasoned breast chunks, excellent rice, raisins, and forgettable frozen mixed vegetables (a rare not-from-scratch element here). The oversized "Federation" platter ($11.99) echoes Somalia's colonial Italian period: spaghetti topped with spicy tomato sauce is flanked by basmati, raisins, vegetables, and beef, fish, or goat. Superb, fresh-made breads include the Ethiopian-influenced anjera ($1.50), a bubbly sourdough flatbread, and muufa ($2), a filling, corn-flour risen dumpling.
Unique ambient touches include free Wi-Fi, incense, a Muslim prayer nook, Somali singers like K'naan on the stereo, and a carpeted, veiled-off corner for traditional Somali dining, i.e., seated on the floor and eating with the right hand, a method Westerners may find as challenging with some dishes as their fumbling first go at chopsticks. (Dining at tables with Western cutlery is perfectly polite, too.) Run by a pair of solicitous young Somali ex-pat cousins, Tawakal Halal Cuisine is food-nerd nirvana, rewarding those obsessive enough to ferret it out with fresh-tasting, globe-trotting, budget-priced delight.
Tawakal Halal Cuisine, located at 1004 Bennington Street, 2nd Floor, in East Boston, is open daily from 11am–10pm. Call 617.561.6563 or visitwww.tawakalcuisine.com.